The launch of Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore edited by Gwee Li Sui represented the culmination of Spotlight Singapore in Cape Town, a robust three-day exchange of business and trade delegates, as well as artists, musicians and writers. The latter presented a fascinating programme to local literati at Lobby Books.
Dudley Cloete, the owner of the soon-to-close Alphen Hotel in Constantia welcomed one and all, regaling them with tales of the hotel’s famous guests and the great passions that flared in its halls. One could almost imagine a ghost or two mingling among the convivial gathering on the balmy late summer evening.
“The first of the Cloete family arrived with Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 with the plan of establishing the provisions stations for the Dutch East India Company. This house and farm was their final acquisition and remains the last of the Cloete possessions, but it is still something we cherish and are trying to give a new dynamic to,” said Cloete, referring to the immanent closure of the popular hotel.
He spoke of Dr James Barry, an enigmatic character who made significant reforms to hygienic protocols in medical care, well before Florence Nightingale. The surgeon to the British forces in the Cape Colony, he performed the first caesarian section in the Cape. Cloete told of a legendary duel, the most famous in the Cape, between his ancestor, Josias Cloete and the ill-humoured doctor, who went on to become the Surgeon General of the British Army. When he died, he was discovered to be a woman. “It’s one of the most extraordinary conundrums in history!”
A certain Henry Cloete, meanwhile, represented the British government in the Boer Republic, but returned to the Cape with a wife who was staunchly pro-Boer. While Roberts and Kitchener discussed their military strategies during the Anglo-Boer War, Cloete’s wife eavesdropped behind the closed louvres, and passed on the secrets to her family!
Deputy chair of the board of directors of the Old Parliament House and the executive director of Singapore’s Arts and Culture Development Office, Lee Suan Hiang, paid tribute to Hoe Fang Fong, the publisher whose vision lay behind the book being launched. Due to ill health, he was not able to travel, but his presence was greatly felt. “His courage, determination and tenacity to produce the book is an inspiration to all of us.”
He thanked his colleagues at Old Parliament House, who brought the literary arts into the programme of Spotlight Singapore for the first time. In a statement that had the South African authors present turning a delicate shade of green he said, “We have just re-emphasised the importance of and our commitment to the development of the literary arts in Singapore. It is timely that we’re creating this platform here in the Cape.” A follow up anthology including South African writers is planned for Spotlight Singapore events in the future.
Finally, the anthology’s editor, Gwee Li Sui, spoke of his youth in the ’80s when he was exposed to South African writing at school. This afforded him the opportunity to explore the works of its authors that became modern classics. “In the ’90s, as a young adult, I found myself joining much of the world in excitement over the emergence of democratic South Africa, experiencing this new territory of its mind called hope. In the year 2000, at a graduate school in London, I finally made my first South African friends.”
Gwee Li Sui said that through literature, world news, and personal stories, he’d come to appreciate a people whose culture was “as different as it is – in some resulting aspects of multiracialism, multilingualism, and the weather – similar to my own.”
He said, “Through this appreciation, it seems natural to me what the challenge of our anthology must be. Any attempt to talk about ourselves that overlooks or simplifies the differences between our histories and cultures would have been dishonest. To ignore those incommensurate aspects of our identities, what is formed by our living for ourselves and for others in our own communities, could even be perceived as impolite.”
This was followed by a reading by two of Singapore’s “Cultural Medallionists”, Edwin Thumboo and Isa Kamari. As the perigee “supermoon” rose into view over the oaks, Isa’s haunting lyrical poetry reminded everyone of the beauty of one’s own home, the longing for family. Presented first in translation in English, then followed in the original Malay, it was the highlight of the night. The melody and rhythm set one’s heart beating for the truest connection, love, that humans will ever know.
Special report by Liesl Jobson